Some of the “looks” are just that: a glimpse. We watch Harrell garb himself for Look 1, “West Coast Preppy School Boy,” adding an untucked blue-gray shirt, a tie, and a yellow rain jacket over his black T-shirt and pants, sticking his feet into flip-flops, and donning dark glasses against the California sun. He doesn’t even get near the runway, just stands and gives us a sullen stare. On to 2. All his fashion images are ironic, witty—managing to be both apt and enigmatic. The scenes gradually take up more space, present more movement, and become more difficult to decode. Checking our lists against the numbers that Harrell hangs on a chair to announce each scene, trying to guess how each skillful costume adjustment will turn out makes spectatorship a game, with time to exchange chuckles with the person in the next seat.

Harrell’s subtly brilliant—a master of the sultry stroll, the aggressive stride, the arrogant set of the jaw. But Twenty Looks is a cultural critique, not a take-off on Top Model, ’60s-style. Parsing the look and its title are part of the fun. For “Eau de Jean Michel,” he sits on a chair and rearranges his footwear, finally picking up and sniffing a running shoe before moving on. For “Serving Old-School Runway,” he combines gold high-tops with a loose gray T-shirt and an apron that shows what could be a photo of 1960s art celebs eating. His gestures are as languid as a British monarch’s wave.

Pieces of clothing are re-cycled (the apron becomes a cape in “Serving Superhero” and flaps obligingly behind him as he sort of flies around). Various snatches of music appear and disappear. So does the sound of feet walking on a hard floor. Not until the untitled Look 11 do the bright runway lights come on. In Look 13, “Legendary Face,” he wears shades and hides his visage as he moves, bending and twisting, about the space, before turning that face toward the limelight. Garbo? Could be. Or not. Just as his caved-in body, bundled-up apron, and silent weeping in a stretchy black dress in “Moderne” (Look 18) could as easily allude to modern dance as to the memoir of an art-gallery guard we hear on tape. Look 20 (along with 17 and 19, the sections with the most movement) is titled “Alt-Moderne feeling the French Lieutenant’s Woman”; he could one second be channeling Martha Graham and the next Meryl Streep gazing out to sea. (That’s not it, Trajal? Never mind, it’s sort of it, isn’t it? Structurally speaking?)

Trajal Harrell in his "Twenty Looks or Paris Is Burning at the Judson Church (S)"
Miana Grafals
Trajal Harrell in his "Twenty Looks or Paris Is Burning at the Judson Church (S)"

Details

Trajal Harrell
The New Museum of Contemporary Art
January 7 through 8

Pam Tanowitz
Dance Theater Workshop
January 10 through 11

APAP week showcases and performances
Various venues
January 7 through 11

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I love watching Harrell indicate styles—now with down-and-dirty swiveling hips, now with weaving, undulating arms and soft stroking-the-air hands, now with high-stepping feet. Every pose resonates. In 17, “Runway Performance With Facial Expressions,” he makes a hurt look seem as detached as any other step.

Note the parenthetical “S” that’s part of the title of this entrancing work. In the world of both high and low fashion, that indicates size. Theoretically, Harrell may go on to create four versions of the piece. Twenty Looks or Paris Is Burning at the Judson Church (M) is due to premiere at the Kitchen later this year or in 2011. I can hardly wait.

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Pam Tanowitz studied extensively with Viola Farber, one of Merce Cunningham’s original dancers, and the three men appearing in Be in the Gray With Me are current or former members of Cunningham’s company. As you might expect, her choreography features articulate feet, long body lines, and movement that tells its own stories. Everything she puts onstage is intriguing, often surprising, and resonant in its implications of human behavior. You may recognize certain movements as balletic—pas de chats, say, or cabrioles—but they don’t have a hand-me-down look. In fact, in this piece, certain passages seem to quote historical ballets and turn them upside down; it’s interesting to note that three of the four composers (Vladimir Martynov, Pavel Karmonov, Alexander Raskatov, and Dan Siegler) are Russian, and Raskatov’s The Season Digest is described as being “after Tchaikovsky.”

The Russian connection may have prompted several fetching moments. At one point, the six women dancers in the piece are clustered in a corner, standing at attention, watching Dylan Crossman solo. Uta Takemura leaves the others and holds Crossman’s hand, while he balances on half-toe, the other leg lifted slightly to the side. One by one, the others replace her at this job. The passage alludes to Petipa’s “Rose Adagio” from Sleeping Beauty, except when the last woman, Anne Lentz, starts to rotate Crossman, he picks her up instead. Shortly after this, he sits, and each woman enters and dances briefly for him, as if he were being asked to choose a bride. Somewhat later, he’s again on the floor, in a pose reminiscent of Nijinsky in his Afternoon of a Faun. Takemura whisks on and off the stage, looking at him like a hesitant nymph, and Theresa Ling performs (for him?), while he makes his fingers dance on the floor, as if he were marking out her steps.

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